The Palm Oil industry in Southeast Asia and Africa generates large quantity of biomass wastes whose disposal is a challenging task. Palm kernel shells (or PKS) are the shell fractions left after the nut has been removed after crushing in the Palm Oil mill. Kernel shells are a fibrous material and can be easily handled in bulk directly from the product line to the end use. Large and small shell fractions are mixed with dust-like fractions and small fibres. Moisture content in kernel shells is low compared to other biomass residues with different sources suggesting values between 11% and 13%.
Palm kernel shells contain residues of Palm Oil, which accounts for its slightly higher heating value than average lignocellulosic biomass. Compared to other residues from the industry, it is a good quality biomass fuel with uniform size distribution, easy handling, easy crushing, and limited biological activity due to low moisture content. PKS can be readily co-fired with coal in grate fired -and fluidized bed boilers as well as cement kilns in order to diversify the fuel mix.
The primary use of palm kernel shells is as a boiler fuel supplementing the fibre which is used as primary fuel. In recent years kernel shells are sold as alternative fuel around the world. Besides selling shells in bulk, there are companies that produce fuel briquettes from shells which may include partial carbonisation of the material to improve the combustion characteristics.
As a raw material for fuel briquettes, palm shells are reported to have the same calorific characteristics as coconut shells. The relatively smaller size makes it easier to carbonise for mass production, and its resulting palm shell charcoal can be pressed into a heat efficient biomass briquette.
Palm kernel shells have been traditionally used as solid fuels for steam boilers in palm oil mills across Southeast Asia. The steam generated is used to run turbines for electricity production. These two solid fuels alone are able to generate more than enough energy to meet the energy demands of a palm oil mill. Most palm oil mills in the region are self-sufficient in terms of energy by making use of kernel shells and mesocarp fibers in cogeneration.
In recent years, the demand for palm kernel shells has increased considerably in Europe, Asia-Pacific, China etc. resulting in price close to that of coal. Nowadays, cement industries and power producers are increasingly using palm kernel shells to replace coal. In grate-fired boiler systems, fluidized-bed boiler systems and cement kilns, palm kernel shells are an excellent fuel.
Cofiring of PKS yields added value for power plants and cement kilns, because the fuel significantly reduces carbon emissions – this added value can be expressed in the form of renewable energy certificates, carbon credits, etc. However, there is a great scope for introduction of high-efficiency cogeneration systems in the industry which will result in substantial supply of excess power to the public grid and supply of surplus PKS to other nations. Palm kernel shell is already extensively in demand domestically by local industries for meeting process heating requirements, thus creating supply shortages in the market.
Palm oil mills around the world may seize an opportunity to supply electricity for its surrounding plantation areas using palm kernel shells, empty fruit branches and palm oil mill effluent which have not been fully exploited yet. This new business will be beneficial for all parties, increase the profitability and sustainability for palm oil industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the electrification ratio in surrounding plantation regions.